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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2746

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (1:34 PM) —The National Measurement Amendment (Utility Meters) Bill 1998 is intended to provide mandatory requirements for specified utility meters as recommended by the Review of Australia's Standards and Conformance Infrastructure—the Kean review.

The bill provides for mandatory pattern approval of meter designs to ensure conformance to acceptable standards and the verification of production meters to ensure that each meter conforms to the pattern and operates within the permissible error range. It also provides an auditing scheme for these verified meters.

In addition, the bill creates an enforcement regime, with provisions dealing with the appointment of authorised officers and powers and obligations of those particular officers. It also includes warrant issuing provisions and search and seizure powers.

The bill addresses a number of longstanding consumer concerns about the accuracy and the quality of water, electricity and gas meters. We believe this is becoming more and more important as we witness the continuing privatisation of utilities by states and territories. Deregulation of utilities by governments also makes the external supervision of utility metering quite desirable.

The bill is also intended to provide conformity in the utility meter market nationally. These goals, of course, we consider in line with the Democrats' concerns regarding consumer affairs and trade policy. However, the bill provides only for testing and approval at the time of manufacture. By agreement, filled re-verification of meters will still be a matter for utility authorities. The Commonwealth, of course, has constitutional power over weights and measures.

There are slight increases in costs to both the utility meter manufacturers and to the National Standards Commission, which will coordinate this new system. However, there is one concern which I will address briefly—that is, the increasing moves to give law enforcement powers to organisations outside traditional law enforcement structures.

In this piece of legislation, division 5 provides enforcement and monitoring powers. Certainly, I and my colleagues remain a little curious as to why these powers need to be elaborated in bills such as this, resulting in almost a proliferation of law enforcement mechanisms. It would seem far more reasonable not to slip extra implementations through in otherwise non-controversial legislation.

The powers themselves are not particularly controversial. I guess in many respects they are similar in many ways to those provided in the area of taxation. The Democrats have weighed up this case. We consider they are appropriate in this circumstance, but we certainly want to put on record our concerns about the proliferation of such power.

I also wish to add a reminder that we will monitor the use of these powers and will move to amend them if we detect any abuse. In the case of this bill, our concerns are outweighed by the improvements for consumers and better regulation of the national and international market for utility meters.